This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series— U.S.–Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship—seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.
Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, various voices have called for the United States to support Ukraine against Russia. The U.S. has imposed sanctions and limited trade with Russia while providing weapons and security assistance to Ukraine. However, some believe the U.S. needs to do more. The U.S. has maintained its position, however, of not intervening militarily except to protect NATO allies. These events and decisions reflect the complex relationship between the United States and Ukraine. Evidence from ADST’s oral history collection suggests this has been true since the onset of the relationship when Ukraine gained its independence following the fall of the Soviet Union.
In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that William Green Miller, who became the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine in 1993, had to juggle competing U.S. interests in trying to gain a cooperative relationship with the new state. Miller discusses the challenges and successes he had in developing the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.
Drafted by Maya Lytje.
William Green Miller’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on February 10, 2003.
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“My task, as expressed by our leaders, was to persuade Ukraine to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.”
Nuclear Disarmament and Ukraine’s Stability:
MILLER: The primary concern was the disposition of the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) aimed at the United States in sufficient number with the capability and invulnerability to destroy the United States many times over. The control of those weapons was very much an issue. Who owned them? Did the new Ukraine own them, did Moscow own them? The Ukrainian government said they had the right, as a successor state, to all objects on their territory, and they persisted in this, as was their right under any understanding of the rights of successor states…
From a strategic point of view, the stability of these weapons was very much in doubt. The feeling in Washington before I went out was that Ukraine was still very unstable, very fragile, and might not survive as a state…
My task, as expressed by our leaders, was to persuade Ukraine to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.
So the concern was nuclear weapons. The other was the viability of the state, what was the makeup of the new Ukraine? Could we work with it? Was Ukrainian policy going to be coherent?
My instructions were, number one, get an agreement to eliminate the nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, number two, figure out what these people are, who they are, who we can deal with and how we can help, if it’s going to be a stable place, to become a stable government.
“So my task was to say, ‘You can count on us, we’re with you.’ And after saying that to convince Kravchuk and the leaders of the Rada that the United States would stand with them, particularly confronting threats from Russia.”
The Ukrainian nationalist independence movement…were pro-Western, but most suspicious of our tendencies, in their minds, to be pro-Moscow.
They had initial doubts because of my long work in the Soviet Union and in Moscow, but decided that I was acceptable to them.
On the other side of the ledger, former President George Bush had been the author of what was called the “Chicken Kyiv” speech, in which he said, in Kyiv, just before independence, formal independence, that Ukraine should work with Gorbachev keeping the Soviet Union together. This speech was given after Ukraine had already declared its independence in August and was about to formally disband the Soviet Union on Christmas day.
We were starting from scratch, really, as a matter of policy. So, I was shaping policy as much as anyone because no one knew what to do. No one had any baseline to work there, and there was no bureaucracy on these matters, because you’re starting tabula rasa (blank slate).
This was a psychological problem from the outset of rather large proportions. The opening discussions about the disposition of nuclear weapons were unsatisfactory. The premises concerning the rights of successor states were not agreed to. The Ukrainian position was, “They’re ours,” and our position was, “No, they’re not,” which was a mistake. I think we should have been, at a minimum, agnostic, to say, “They’re on your territory, we’re worried about the succession. Yes, they’re there. What about that? Are we going to get rid of them or not?” But we were preemptory, we spoke to the Ukrainians in a manner of diktat (order). “You will get rid of those weapons.”
The Ukrainians felt Washington and Moscow were ganging up against Kyiv, the new state. That impasse was created, in my view, because of the initial approach and style taken. I decided, and perhaps it’s my temperament, to listen with courtesy and take no positions until I had heard them out.
Immediately after my arrival in Kyiv, I followed up on the earlier meetings I had held with the legislators and the messengers from the Ukrainian government in August in Washington. I met everyone I could, from Communists to ultra-nationalists, and asked them all what they really thought.
The main questions in Ukrainian minds was could the Americans be trusted to support Ukraine fully. There were reservations both Kravchuk and the parliament made clear. The parliamentarians and the president’s government clearly reflected the spectrum of views, including a substantial majority view, that believed that the Americans couldn’t be trusted to carry out their word, and that Ukraine should retain its nuclear weapons as a hedge, as a deterrent, not to be used, because the Ukrainian elite was very clear on the strategic utility of the use of nuclear weaponry, but as a bargaining chip, to assure their independence. So my task was to say, “You can count on us, we’re with you.” And after saying that to convince Kravchuk and the leaders of the Rada that the United States would stand with them, particularly confronting threats from Russia.
I reported immediately to Washington the resolution of the Rada on nuclear weapons, which had these reservations, and I commented that I thought this was the basis of a good agreement. The reaction from Washington was not what I expected, rather it was along the lines of, “Go back and tell them there can be no conditions except elimination.” And I said, “No, this is a good agreement. Come and see for yourself.”
The attitude in Washington was that Ukraine led by Kravchuk would back out or weasel out of an agreement as they had before. Kravchuk and the Ukrainians wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.
When they came, they were dealing with this difficulty of negotiations with people like Kravchuk and Buteyko and Tarasyuk, who were very suspicious, resentful, defensive, protective, thin skinned, very close to their dignities and we, as representatives of a confident nation, are impatient, and as leaders of a great power we sometimes behave arrogantly, and with little or no magnanimity. Clinton was a personal exception. Clinton was magnificent all the time, because he understood this feeling of uncertainty on the part of the Ukrainians and was decisive in very important moments by saying and conveying the feeling that, “I’m with you, I’m with you,” they got the point. Clinton further conveyed his own sense of how to approach and talk to the Ukrainians, to his key aides, his advisers and his cabinet officers. He said that that’s the approach he wanted. This was the way he saw it, and they responded accordingly. So, from the point of view of presidential help, for me, I couldn’t be more grateful than I am for Clinton’s substantive help. He was terrific in substance, and particularly the handling of psychological attitude. He knew what was needed. He was absolutely brilliant. I marveled at how good he was at this important quality of empathy.
I think the skeptical, hard-edged businesslike atmosphere of arms control negotiations, as a method, or style, can prevent agreement, as was the case, initially, with Ukraine. Worst-case analysis, being sure that every loophole that the other side might use are covered, assuming that your own position is Simon Pure and virtuous and your opposite number is duplicitous, the sensitivity of a new nation, their need for dignities, their delicate new sense of honor, diplomatic inexperience and awkwardness all had to be taken into account.
The assertion that Ukraine would be treated fairly and justly was something that had to be proved. The Ukrainians had deep doubts that we would treat Ukraine fairly and with dignity. Ukrainian leaders believed that long service in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, by our foreign policy experts was operating against Ukraine. So what we did to counter this sense of insecurity was—Strobe and Jim Collins and others made this work—the White House, NCSC advisor Tony Lake and most importantly, the president—was that every visit that was made to Moscow, there would also be a stop in Kyiv. The president or other high officials would either start in Kyiv or end up in Kyiv. So, every official that went to the former Soviet Union, and there were almost weekly cabinet officer visits, was in that framework of this two track policy. It was what I recommended. It was what Strobe and the president believed in, and we carried it out, and it was very effective.
“It was a sacrifice and a very noble action that should be commended.”
Nuclear Disarmament Success:
Kravchuk said his government and the Rada had come to a policy decision in Kyiv, which was that Ukraine would, in accord with their previous declarations, even before independence, become a non-nuclear state. They would agree to eliminate all weapons on their territory, provided security assurances were given that we would support Ukraine in the event of military, political, or economic pressure, and there would be economic assistance for their dismantlement and elimination, and that we would support Ukraine politically and economically through its initial difficulties.
In the Ukrainian mind, this was a noble act. I think it was a noble act.
This conscious action of elimination of their nuclear arsenal was a fundamental foundation for a new state in a new world order, a foundation of peace. It was a sacrifice and a very noble action that should be commended.
U.S. Support of Ukraine:
From the beginning of independent Ukraine in 1991, those three issues: Black Sea Fleet; Russian presence, the Independent Republic of Crimea; and the Tatar minority question, were on the hot burner. All three issues went to the UN. The United States supported Ukraine’s sovereignty in the question of Crimea. We supported the minority rights of the Tatars, in accord with the Ukrainian constitution and laws, and we supported the Ukrainian position on the division of the Black Sea Fleet on an agreed basis, and a limited term of rental for Russian basing in Crimea. Those were tests of our support for Ukraine. We met those tests. When the Ukrainians asked for support, we gave it, and vigorously, and in the form that they needed. The particular form was full support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
William & Mary, Goethe Institute, Oxford, Harvard
Joined Foreign Service 1959
Iran, Vice Consul and Political Officer 1959–1965
State Department Executive Secretariat 1966–1967
Post Resignation activities:
Chief of Staff, Senate Select Committee 1972–1976
Senatorial Intelligence Oversight Committee 1976–1981
American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations 1986–1992
Ambassador to Ukraine 1993–1998